Tuesday, April 5, 2011

A Homemaker’s Guide to Planting a Quick Herb or Kitchen Garden

(My food column for Heartland Women
a free, monthly newspaper published for 
women in Southern Illinois)

March 2011

My first adventure in gardening was a small plot of dirt in the backyard of our first on-base Air Force housing. One day, as we enjoyed our first spring in North Carolina, I decided to grow tomatoes. Without a clue about what we were doing, My Favorite Husband and I dug some holes in the grass behind our little privacy fence and plopped a dozen tomato plants into the ground.

No kidding! Just like that! Twelve tomato plants!

Our neighbors, who spent the entire weekend shoveling, hoeing, raking, spreading compost and adding fertilizer to their meticulously designed gardens, seemed incredulous. I was crazy, they said, if I thought those tomatoes would grow! That was no way to plant a garden.

Nevertheless, by mid-July, I was the one filling big brown paper grocery bags with red ripe tomatoes almost daily and handing them out to anyone who would take them, including the neighbors. The bountiful harvest continued until Thanksgiving. I was a grateful gardener!

Our next gardening project was a little more involved. This time we were transferred to California and had purchased a one-year-old house in a neighborhood straight out of the movie ET. There we were, in our 2-story stucco with the garage on the front, sitting on the coveted corner lot. We were ready to enjoy the California lifestyle!

An 8 ft. tall wooden fence enclosed our backyard, so even though we were on that corner lot, we had some privacy. From the family room, we stepped out onto a salt-finished cement patio with a walkway around the heated pool and spa. Raised beds were built between the fence and the walkway around the pool, and a stand of bamboo created a little extra privacy along the fence we shared with our only next-door neighbors. The previous owners had planted the raised beds. Inside the fence along the street side of the house was an E-shaped raised bed for a vegetable garden, complete with built-in sprinklers. Around the pool area, the beds were filled with beautiful native flowering plants, a lemon tree here, a lime tree there, an orange tree in the corner and a strawberry patch at the perfect height for sitting to pick the berries. We had a vegetable patch and our own backyard orchard -- we were California fruit growers!

The front yard was another matter entirely, and maybe even the cause of the previous owners’ divorce. It was a dense jungle of 6 ft. tall weeds. A whole new plant classification was needed for these weeds. Weeds with trunks! Weed trees! The situation demanded our immediate attention. Thank goodness this was pre-Internet, or I’m sure the neighbors would have already googled Agent Orange and staged their own attack on our weed jungle.

Ah, but we were young and strong Midwesterners in this strange land. Homeowner chores, like installing sprinklers and planting grass, were made for thrifty weekend do-it-yourselfers like us, so we dug right in!

Day One – My Favorite Husband scraped the surface of the hard sun-baked dirt with the blade edge of a shovel and cut the weeds off at ground level. Day Two – He used a rented machine to dig trenches and laid out PVC pipe and sprinkler heads, all of which he connected to the timer system previously installed in the backyard. Day Three – He scattered grass seed over the entire 350 square feet of our front yard, set the timer, turned on the new sprinklers and his job was done! Two weeks later, we had a beautiful thick carpet of grass and nary a weed to be found. Every week, 52 weeks a year, it took us a total of 11 minutes to cut the grass in the front yard, including edging along the street, sidewalk and front walkway. No wonder people love California so much – they have oodles of free time to jam up the freeways and enjoy the weather!

When we awoke from our California dream life, we found ourselves back in North Carolina for our last Air Force assignment. We purchased another house on a nice corner lot with plenty of pines and deciduous trees of our own, and behind us was a 3-acre undeveloped and heavily wooded lot. There were so many trees, in fact, that it took a few hurricanes to clear out a spot with enough sunlight for a small garden. It was the only upside to hurricanes, to my way of thinking! In the years that we waited for Mother Nature to bring the sun to come to the back yard, I had read a book about “lasagna gardening” and was convinced it would be perfect for a fast and easy vegetable and herb garden. And why not? After all, gardening was a snap for us!

So, not long after I decided we definitely needed a garden, I asked Grant to drive me, in his truck, to the garden center. I explained to him we were going to plant a lasagna garden. He likes gardening, but he looked puzzled until I explained the lasagna gardening method. The term is one used when a garden plot is prepared by setting down a natural barrier right on top of any existing grass and weeds, followed by layers of peat moss, compost and natural fertilizer. With a biodegradable barrier for weed control, nutrients for the plants, and no need for tedious roto-tilling and soil preparation, it was the perfect method for gardeners like me – who love a garden, but not so much the gardening part of the process.

Back at the sunny sight of our new lasagna garden, we took a lesson from our California gardens and created a slightly raised bed using landscape timbers – grass outside, garden inside! To access the garden for watering and harvesting, we borrowed the E-shape  from our California garden as well.

The first layer in our lasagna garden was to be either flattened cardboard or several layers of newspaper spread right on top of the grass and then sprayed down with the hose to fix them in place. After that, we added bags of peat moss, compost and fertilizer to a thickness of about 4 inches. We chose some herbs and vegetables purchased from the garden center to plant. Summer rain is never a problem in eastern North Carolina, so we saved money on the underground sprinkler system. Our lasagna kitchen garden soon bore maximum fruit for our minimal labor. And that’s a good thing!

When we bought our present home and moved back to Illinois, there were so many amazing features, inside and out, to appeal to a cook that I was almost overwhelmed. This time around, we had tiered, raised beds that bordered one side of the pool. These garden beds have proven to be the perfect place for my kitchen garden, but the critters that share our space are quick to eat the few fruits and vegetables we have attempted to grow. What we need now is a fenced-in garden compound, off somewhere in a corner of the yard that gets sunlight, has access to water and can be fenced to ward off four-footed garden poachers!

All things considered, lasagna gardening makes the perfect solution for small-time gardeners - or reluctant gardeners – like me! The principles can be applied to a vegetable patch, raised beds, or even container gardens. Find more online at www.lasagnagardening.com or purchase the book, by Patricia Lanza - Lasagna Gardening: A New Layering System for Bountiful Gardens: No Digging, No Tilling, No Weeding, No Kidding!

Listed below are the key things to keep in mind when planning and planting your own garden. It’s not too late to get one started for this year, especially if you use the fast and easy lasagna gardening method. Whether you want a pot of herbs growing out on your deck or a vegetable patch on the south 40 acres, I think you’ll find a garden is an easy and useful project for anyone interested in the source and quality of their food, self-sufficiency and good nutrition. Remember, too, kids are more willing to try foods they have grown themselves.

I have included some recipes here that I’ll be making with herbs and vegetables from my own garden this year. But rest assured, if the critters get to the good stuff before I do again this year, I’ll be foraging at the Farmers’ Market and local farm stands for my favorite seasonal fruits and vegetables. Isn’t it great to have so many locally grown options!

Making Your Garden Grow

How: Start small, choose a location convenient to your house with good or amendable soil, use available resources from garden centers, garden mentors, garden websites, or gardening and plant manuals. Growing herbs and vegetables in containers is the perfect gardening solution for those who may have health or physical limitations, limited space available or limited time.

What: Grow what you like to eat or whatever you would like to try. Research the plants to find the varieties best suited for our area. Grow a little extra to share with friends and neighbors who will welcome your abundance.

When: Now is the perfect time to plan your garden! Many vegetables can be set out now and will tolerate cooler temperatures. Some vegetables are also suitable for what is known as a “second season” and can be planted again in the late summer for harvesting in the fall.

Where: Make it easy on yourself and plant the garden close enough to house to visit every day to check for pests, remove dead leaves, water and, best of all, harvest. All of this should take just a few minutes each day. Families can take turns or assign specific tasks.

Why: Fresh food is better. Pesticides and fertilizers are your choice. Know the source of the food you eat. Know how your food was grown. Your kids will learn where food comes from. Homegrown is economical.

My garden is relatively small these days, but the satisfaction is great. My fresh herbs are very easy to grow in a garden or a pot, and are so handy to have on hand. Small plants are available in the early spring and usually cost less that one package of fresh herbs from the supermarket. Most herbs will thrive all summer long with sun and water and many will last until the first heavy frost. And I am always pleasantly surprised to find a few of them will winter over every year! To preserve a bumper crop of fresh herbs, they should be washed and dried before drying or freezing. All winter long, you'll have the perfect seasonings for sauces, stews and salad dressings.

If you are eager to try a small garden this year, think salads. Lettuces and spinach are easy and economical to grow from seeds and they also work quite well in either pots or gardens. Lettuces are a cool season crop, so plant them right now and you will have fresh salad greens until the weather gets really warm. A second crop of lettuces can be planted toward the end of summer and will produce until heavy frost.

1 large bunch of fresh flat leaf parsley (or a mix of fresh parsley and cilantro)
2 - 4 cloves of garlic, peeled
4 tbsp. sherry or red wine vinegar
1 tsp. kosher salt
½ tsp. freshly ground black pepper
½ tsp. dried oregano
½ - 1 tsp. red pepper flakes, optional or to taste
½ cup extra virgin olive oil

Rough chop the parsley, cilantro and garlic and place in a small bowl. Add vinegar, salt, black pepper, oregano and red pepper flakes to the bowl. Slowly drizzle olive oil into bowl with one hand while stirring constantly with the other until the mixture is blended and is liquid, rather than like a paste. Allow chimichurri to sit at room temperature for a couple of hours before using. Serve with grilled meats, poultry or seafood. Options: Use as a marinade before grilling. Add to simple vinaigrette to create a delicious dressing for salads or grilled vegetables.

Spring Salad of Baby Lettuces with Baked Goat Cheese and Strawberry Vinaigrette
4 oz. pecans, toasted and chopped
8 oz. log of goat cheese, sliced into 4 round discs
1 lb. fresh baby lettuce mix and/or baby spinach, washed and dried
Strawberry Vinaigrette – see recipe below

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Place toasted and chopped pecans on a small plate and press pecans into the goat cheese rounds on all sides. Place the cheese rounds on a baking sheet and bake for about 10 minutes. Remove from oven and cool for a couple of minutes while you prepare the salad plates. Place baby lettuces in a mixing bowl and drizzle with a small amount of Strawberry Vinaigrette; toss lightly to mix. Place lettuces on four salad plates and top with baked goat cheese rounds. Drizzle a small amount of the dressing over the goat cheese an around the edge of the plate. Serve salad immediately.

Strawberry Vinaigrette
2-4 tbsp. sugar
¼ cup raspberry vinegar
½ cup light olive oil
2 cups fresh (or frozen) strawberries*

Stir together sugar and vinegar until the sugar is dissolved. Slowly drizzle olive oil into the mixture while stirring with a wire whisk; mix until well blended. Add the strawberry puree and whisk until blended. Leftovers may be refrigerated for a day or two. *May substitute raspberries or blueberries, fresh or frozen.

Pasta with Chicken, Asparagus and Fresh Herbs
12 oz. pasta – spaghetti, bow ties or penne
olive oil
juice of two lemons
1 bunch fresh asparagus, cut into 2-in. pieces
2 boneless chicken breasts, sliced into bite-size pieces
kosher salt & freshly ground pepper
1 cup freshly grated Parmesan cheese
½ cup chopped fresh herbs – any combination of thyme, chives, dill, basil, flat leaf parsley, oregano, etc.

Cook pasta in boiling salted water according to package directions; drain and return to pot. Mix olive oil with lemon juice and stir into pasta; cover pot to keep warm. In a large skillet, heat some olive oil and butter together and sauté asparagus until bright green and tender; remove from skillet and to pasta. Season sliced chicken with salt and pepper; add to same skillet, with a little more olive oil and butter, if necessary. Sauté until chicken is cooked through. Remove chicken from skillet and add to pot with pasta. Add Parmesan cheese, salt, freshly ground black pepper and herbs to pasta, asparagus and chicken; toss to blend. Serve in pasta bowls, along with extra Parmesan cheese.
Serves 2 – 4.

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